"Venture Leasing-A Smarter Way To Build Enterprise Value"
In 2003, venture capitalists and investors dispense over $18 billion to promising young US companies, according to VentureOne and Ernst & Young Quarterly Venture Capital Report . Less documented and reported is venture leasing's activity and volume. This form of equipment financing contributed greatly to the growth of US start-ups. Yearly, specialty leasing companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into start-ups, permitting savvy entrepreneurs to achieve the biggest 'bang for their buck' in financing growth. What is venture leasing and how do sophisticated entrepreneurs maximize enterprise value with this type of financing? Why is venture leasing a cheaper and smarter way to finance needed equipment when compared to venture capital? For answers, one must look closely at this relatively new and expanding form of equipment financing specifically designed for rapidly growing venture capital-backed start-ups.
The term venture leasing describes the leasing of equipment to pre-profit, start-ups funded by venture capital investors. These companies usually have negative cash flow and rely on additional equity rounds to execute their business plans. Venture leasing originated to allow growing start-ups to acquire needed operating equipment while conserving expensive venture development capital. Equipment financed by venture leases usually includes essentials such as computers, laboratory equipment, test equipment, furniture, manufacturing and production equipment, and other equipment to automate the office.
Using Venture Leasing Is Smart
Customers benefit more from venture leasing as compared to traditional bank financing in two ways. First, venture leases are usually only secured by the underlying equipment. Additionally, there are usually no restrictive financial covenants. Most banks, if they lend to early stage companies, require blanket liens on all of the companies' assets. In some cases, they also require guarantees of the start-ups' principals. More and more, sophisticated entrepreneurs recognize the stifling effects of these limitations and their impact on growth. When start-ups need additional financing and a sole lender has encumbered all assets or required guarantees, these young companies become less attractive to other financing sources. Correcting this situation can sap the entrepreneurs' time and energy.
How Venture Leasing Works
Venture lessors target lessee prospects that have good promise and that are likely to fulfill their leases. Since most start-ups rely on future equity rounds to execute their business plans, lessors devote significant attention to credit review and due diligence - evaluating the caliber of the investor group, the efficacy of the business plan and management's background. A superior management team has usually demonstrated prior successes in the field in which the new venture is active. Additionally, management's expertise in the key business functions -- sales, marketing, R&D, production, engineering, finance --- is essential. Although there are many professional venture capitalists financing new ventures, there can be a significant difference in their abilities, staying power and resources. The better venture capitalists achieve excellent results and have direct experience with the type of companies being financed. The best VCs have developed industry specialization and many have in-house specialists with direct operating experience within the industries covered. Also important to the venture lessor are the amount of capital VCs provide the start-up and the amount allocated for future funding rounds.
After determining that the management team and venture capital investors are qualified, venture lessors evaluate the start-up's business model and the market potential of the venture. Since most venture lessors are not technology specialists-able to assess products, technology, patents, business processes and the like - they rely greatly on the thorough due diligence of experienced venture capitalists. But the experienced venture lessor does undertake an independent evaluation of the business plan and conducts careful due diligence to understand its content. Here, the lessor generally attempts to understand and concur with the business model. Questions to be answered include: Is the business model sensible? How large is the market for the prospect's services or products? Are the income projections realistic? Is pricing of the product or service sensible? How much cash is on hand and how long will it last according to the projections? When is the next equity round needed? Are the key people needed execute the business plan in place? These and similar questions help determine whether the business model is reasonable.
Satisfied that the business model is sound, the venture lessor's greatest concern is whether the start-up has sufficient liquidity or cash on hand to support a significant portion of the lease term. If the venture fails to raise additional capital or runs out of cash, the lessor is not likely to collect further lease payments. To mitigate this risk, most experienced venture lessors pursue start-ups with at least nine months of cash or sufficient liquid assets to service a substantial portion of their leases.
Getting the Best Deal
Once the start-up finds a capable venture lessor, negotiating a fair and competitive lease is the next order of business. A number of factors determine venture lease pricing and terms. Important factors include: 1) the perceived credit strength of the lessee, 2) equipment quality, 3) market rates, and 4) competitive factors within the venture leasing market. Since the lease can be structured with several options, many of which influence the ultimate lease cost, start-ups should compare competing lease proposals. Lessors typically structured leases to yield 14% - 20%. By developing end-of-lease options to better accommodate lessees' needs, lessors can shift some of this pricing to the lease's back end in the form of a fair market value or fixed purchase or renewal option. It is not uncommon to see a three year lease structured to yield 9% - 11% annually during the initial lease term. Thereafter, the lessee can choose to return the equipment, purchase the equipment for 10% - 15% of equipment cost or to renew the lease for an additional year. If the lease is renewed, the lessor recovers an additional 10% - 15% of equipment cost. If the equipment is returned to the lessor, the start-up reduces its cost and limits the amount paid under the lease. The lessor will then remarket the equipment to achieve the 14% - 20% yield target.
Another way that leasing companies can justify slashing lease payments is to incorporate warrants to purchase stock into the transaction. Warrants give the lessor the right to buy an agreed upon quantity of ownership shares at a share price predetermined by the parties. Under a venture lease with warrant pricing, the lessor typically prices that lease several percentage points below a similar lease without warrants. The number of warrants the start-up proffers is arrived at by dividing a portion of the lease line - usually 3% to 15% of the line - by the warrant strike price. The strike price is typically the share price of the most recently completed equity round. Including a warrant option often encourages venture lessors to enter transactions with companies that are very early in development or where the equipment to be leased is of questionable quality or re-marketability.
Building a young company into an industry leader is in many ways similar to building a state-of-the art airplane or bridge. You need the right people, partners, ideas, materials and tools. Venture leasing is a useful tool for the savvy entrepreneur. When used properly, this financing tool can help early stage companies accelerate growth, squeeze the most out of their venture capital and increase enterprise value between equity rounds. Why not preserve ownership for those really doing the heavy lifting?
George Parker is a Director and Executive Vice President of Leasing Technologies International, Inc. ('LTI'). He is responsible for overseeing the company's marketing and financing efforts. One of the co-founders of LTI, Mr. Parker has been involved in secured lending and equipment financing for over twenty years. Mr. Parker is an industry leader, frequent panelist and author of several articles pertaining to equipment financing.
Headquartered in Wilton, CT, LTI is a leasing firm specializing nationally in direct equipment financing and vendor leasing programs for emerging growth and later-stage, venture capital backed companies. More information about LTI is available at www.ltileasing.com